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A&E Explores: A guide to camping Minnesota’s winter wonderland

It’s almost time for one of the state’s most enchanting experiences: winter camping.
Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

The sunsets and conversation are amplified by the fire’s birch-bark-perfumed crackle. Snow waltzes silently through the icy superior breeze.

Winter camping is an ethereal experience. From the revitalizing seclusion to grandeur scenery, Minnesota becomes an arguably better place to get outdoors once flakes start to fly. 

But it’s absolutely essential to prepare for the adventure.

Here’s A&E’s go-to guide for anyone looking to keep their explorer spirit going once temperatures drop. Please note, it’s always a good idea to check with a professional, like at Midwest Mountaineering or REI, for more information before heading out.

Layer on the clothing

Layers. Layers. Layers. And then what? More layers.

“You sweat in the summer [and] the winter,” Afton State Park naturalist Linda Radimecky said. “Layers help make sure you can wick and stay dry.”

Proper clothing is, above all, the key to staying comfortable while getting rustic when temperatures drop. By layering, you are able to regulate the body heat that gets trapped and keeps you cozy trudging through the north woods.

A base layer of heavyweight merino wool will keep sweat off your body and keep you warm when taking breaks during an exhilarating hike. 

Then, a sweatshirt or zip-up under a down jacket will maximize customizable heat retention — but be careful! Unless your down jacket is top-of-the-line, it will lose all of its toasty-ness once wet. Top off your look with a waterproof, insulated shell or alpine jacket. 

Below, long underwear — again, merino wool is preferred — paired with wool socks is the quintessential combo for any camping cocktail. 

The secret ingredient? Bring extras. Wet socks are unbearable year round and can turn dangerous in the winter. Lose the textbook and use the room for more socks — learn economics or save your toes? You decide.

When the stars come out and fresh-air inspired doziness sets in, camping pajamas have similar requirements. Your body will burn more calories when trekking through the cold than normal. At night, it’s the same deal.

“I learned this the hard way, but bring a pair of clothes to sleep in,” Radimecky said. “People think that you’re nuts. You think you won’t strip down in 20-degree weather. But you will sleep in much better and stay much warmer.”

Think ahead to prepare your gear

Proper gear makes or breaks any camping trip. Preparing adequately for the challenges that lie ahead can make winter camping not just a “character building” experience, but a feverishly fun one at that.

“The biggest aspect of winter camping — and potentially the most dangerous — is keeping dry,” University of Minnesota Outdoors Club officer Mateo Frumholtz said. “It’s really fun if you get that right.”

There are snow piles to climb, deep fields to traverse and flake-covered pines to shake. But once all the fun is had, it’s time to rest.

Pitching a waterproof tent with appropriate sealing is a must. One moment you’re in a picturesque snow globe, the next in a Himalayan ice storm. With Minnesota weather, get a great tent.

In addition, a sleeping bag with a zero-degree or below temperature rating is a must. Heat escapes the body like no other in the winter, especially if you are on the ground. Try and snag a sleeping pad or, better yet, a cot.

Not a North Face sponsored athlete with a mountain of gear? The University’s Recreation and Wellness Center has your back, Frumholtz suggests.

“If you don’t have something, just go to the outdoors center in the Rec,” Frumholtz said. “They have pretty much everything you’d need for winter gear.”

In addition, always have a way to start a fire. Packing tinder will save your life — perhaps literally — when nightfall starts to descend and temperatures drop.

“I love the challenge winter camping presents,” Frumholtz said. “It’s really just summer camping, but a lot colder and with a lot of fun things to do.”

Oh, and obviously gear up with winter hats, boots and mittens. If you forget these, just turn around.

Keeping a strong mentality

In a state where winter consumes the majority of the year, adaptability molds happiness. Fun in the sun shouldn’t stop when October hits.

Truly, our state becomes a Shangri-la in the wintertime.

“It might sound a little boring, but try camping in your backyard,” REI flagship store Bloomington staff member Joe Jackson said. “It’s actually more exciting than you think. Everything gets snowed over; it’s fun to tuck in.”

And hey, if nothing else, the bears are hibernating, so you don’t have to worry about that.

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